Cornelia Funke is a hugely successful, award-winning German author of fantasy and adventure books for children of all ages - they range from picture books to young adult novels. She started out as an illustrator before beginning to write herself and became very popular in Germany in the nineties before her books began to become known in English a decade or so later. She is probably best known for the Inkworld trilogy, the first book of which, Inkheart, was also made into a 2008 film with what you might call an all-star cast.
I was just about to write that Funke is an author I hadn't previously read, when I checked her publications list and realised that fils aîné had borrowed The Princess Knight (tr. Anthea Bell, Chicken House, 2003) from the library a while ago. It's the story of the entirely non-girly Princess Violetta who wants to be a knight like her brothers and is disgusted when her father holds a tournament with her hand in marriage as the prize. With ingenuity and determination, "Little Vi" manages to outwit them all and choose her own path in life. It's also beautifully illustrated by Kerstin Meyer and a welcome antedote to all the Disney princess stuff that makes me glad to have boys!
Anyway, although I was aware of the Inkworld trilogy, I hadn't read any of Funke's fantasy novels because they came along too late for my childhood and the boys are still too young for them. In the last couple of weeks, I've read Igraine the Brave (tr. Anthea Bell, Chicken House, 2008) and Dragon Rider (tr. Anthea Bell, Chicken House, 2005) and hope that they provide a fairly representative sample of her work - I couldn't get hold of Inkheart etc in time for this project.
Igraine is another little girl who wants to be a knight. The book is for younger children, 7+ according to the publishers, and I hope it's the sort of thing fils aîné might be getting round to before long. Her parents are famous magicians who manage to accidentally transform themselves into pigs. This means that Igraine has to put things right, meeting dragons, giants and all kinds of adventures on the way. It would be a good introduction to chapter books, chivalry, knights in armour and so on because none of the dangers ever get beyond what the film industry calls "mild peril", and it's short at 224 pages. It is also wittily told by both Funke and Bell, and illustrated by the author.
Dragon Rider, also illustrated by Funke herself, is a more ambitious undertaking altogether. Weighing in at 560 pages, it's for the 10+ age group and tells the story of a dragon named Firedrake, a brownie named Sorrel and a boy named Ben. Together they set off on an epic journey to find the long-lost valley where the last dragons can live in peace, undisturbed by human greed. Of course there are plenty of dangers to be overcome here too, and an ancient enemy is on their trail... Reading as an adult, I quite enjoyed it but felt that it lacked depth. The characters seemed rather too obvious, the dangers rather easily overcome. And I do always feel a little irritated when the journey out takes 550 pages and the return leg can be summed up in a couple of lines! Probably despite the length and the 10+ label it might be suited to a younger audience still. I can imagine that in a few years' time, the boys will love it.